The Academy Award Nominations are fast approaching. It’s the time of year where all the ‘serious’ films come out, and even infrequent moviegoers start to speak like film historians. I’ll start hearing words like “genius” and “masterpiece” from someone who once recommended that I go see Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because it’s “actually really interesting” (yes, I know someone who’s like that. I do my best to smile and nod.)
I will admit, however, that one of the good things about the Academy Awards is its instructional element. It can serve as a guide to those who otherwise find themselves too busy or disinterested to separate the wheat from the chaff. Even after the awards are over, films have their Oscar nomination stamped all over their marketing, increasing their chances of recognition amongst the public. Although I disagree with the Academy from time to time, I’m glad that someone out there is exercising their ability to do this.
But what about the other eleven months of the year? I know I’m sounding sanctimonious (as usual), but I think far too many people choose which films to watch for the wrong reasons. Typically, people will see a film because of who’s in it. That’s not a revelation, I know, and movie studios have been aware of it forever. Budgets almost always fluctuate in accordance with casting, not writing or directing. A movie star will have a certain radiant charisma and/or reputation that helps draw an audience in and can even charm them into liking a bad film more than they otherwise would have. We’re all susceptible to it, myself included, but I still contend that it’s a mistake on the viewer’s part.
If you find yourself thinking “Oh, I might see that film because George Clooney’s in it, and I like him”, then you might just end up wasting money and time on Batman and Robin or Tomorrowland. The trick, rather, is to think about films like books. You don’t choose which books to read based on an incidental plot feature or, as the usual saying goes, by judging it on its cover. You usually fill out your bookshelf based on authors, right? Well, there’s a film version of that as well. It’s called…
Auteur theory is a concept that originated in French cinema. It’s a vast and largely debated topic, but essentially boils down to the notion that a single filmmaker can be (and should be) responsible for directing all aspects of a film in order to succeed with one coherent vision. Hence the word “auteur”, the french for “author”. It rejects the profit-driven notion of films being made by a committee, as is the standard on large scale studio pictures.
I don’t want to get into the weeds of this thing, but I largely agree with auteur theory. Most filmmakers are at their best when liberated from studio interference. Then there are some that only seem to make good movies when pressure is applied to them in terms of budget restrictions and/or financial pressure. It depends on the artist, but I’m usually uncomfortable with corporations and powerful colleagues telling a painter that they can’t use certain brushes. The result is often unsatisfying.
And so, I’ve decided to provide you with a guide, of sorts, to some of my own personal favourite auteurs.
There are several auteur filmmakers that you will already be familiar with. Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese all qualify as auteurs because they shepherd their films from script to screen and oversee every shred of the production. I love and admire them just like everyone else, but they’re still compromising within a studio system. A pure auteur, conceived in the saintly womb of obsessive control, is one that writes their own dialogue, casts their own actors, and frames every shot. They keep their budgets relatively low in order to minimise hassle with the investors.
You may be familiar with some of these, but my hope is to introduce you to the ones you’ve never heard of. There is no real order, best to worst or vice versa, so the choice is yours to find your favourite.
Often, auteurs will have a dominant theme or genre that they operate within, and I’m attempting to pinpoint each one respectively in order to help you find the best filmmaker for you. Not only am I listing their movies, but I’ve split them into three levels of accessibility. This will give you a ladder to climb if you find that the first ‘rung’ agrees with you. Please be aware that I’m not ranking the films, I’m just designating some films as more or less harsh for a layman’s palette. Also, I’ve tried to pick auteurs who have made at least three films, but less than fifteen; worthy, but not daunting.
And so we begin with…
I’m going to start with what I consider to be the most accessible auteur on this list, Alexander Payne. Payne is an interesting case, because his films are well known to many, but he is not. For the layman film-goer he remains an invisible hand, frequently shunning personal publicity.
His most famous film is probably Election, which was described as a ‘high school teen comedy’ in the 90’s. It’s really not, though. If anything, it’s an examination of personality types and the absurdity of who wins and loses within politics and society. It is, however, a comedy. All of Payne’s films are comedies, but with varying degrees of deadpan social dissection baked in. Election, interestingly, also has an uncanny resemblance to Americas most recent Presidential Election. The three nominees, Tracy, Paul, and Tammy, are eerily similar to Clinton, Sanders, and Trump, forcing us to face the reality of politics’ predictable unending cyclical nature. Have fun trying to decipher which is which.
Payne loves to skewer his main characters, who are mostly anxiety-ridden middle aged white males. I suppose it’s a blatant case of “write what you know”. As with all great artists, his canvas is as much of a therapy tool as it is a workplace. His stories are always set in his home state of Omaha, Nebraska. They involve characters who are comfortable, if a little unfulfilled, in their quiet boring lives, but eventually find themselves on a perspective-altering journey that is both literal and figurative. By the end they find out that the world they were so comfortable inhabiting was, in fact, incomplete. The fruits of life were always within their grasp, they just never had the courage to reach out and cease them. Examples of this include About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska.
Sideways is especially brilliant, and no one fulfils the Alexander Payne character type better than Paul Giamatti. The man can make make me laugh with mere eye motion.
He plays Miles, a depressed struggling writer with a cultured passion for wine, who takes his impulse-driven successful actor friend, Jack, on a week long bachelor romp through the Californian countryside. Of course ‘hilarity ensues’, but so does a lot of introspection and personal growth. By the end, a few subtle moments of facial expression and body language sums up Miles’ pivot towards a more proactive lifestyle. If you haven’t seen Sideways, wedge it into your schedule immediately.
About Schmidt, The Descendants, and Nebraska could easily be boxed together as a trilogy. They’re Payne’s slowest films, giving you time to sip on and savour every shot. All three feature significantly older main characters struggling to deal with the latter stages of their existence. Sudden loss of a loved one or a slow onset of dementia causes old secrets to reveal themselves, in the form of romantic affairs or a forgotten personal history. They’re not films for those who want a fast laugh, they’ll make you think deeply with the odd chuckle interspersed. The comedy springs naturally from behaviour and character, as it should, and not from strategically wacky dialogue. Of course Payne, being an auteur, frequently demonstrates his ability to frame a shot for maximum visual comedy.
You don’t have to be “old” or “artsy” to enjoy these films, you just have to be patient and open minded.
Occasionally, Payne will dive head first into politics. He won’t ever take a stance, but instead tries to dissect a debate and slam its uttermost extremes together, juxtaposing them to extract humour. Citizen Ruth is a bravely light hearted spin on the abortion debate. If you’re passionately invested in the topic from either side, then you may find it offensively diplomatic. Others may see its ‘cast of caricatures’ as a little too on the nose. I liked it, but it’s definitely not my favourite of Payne’s work. Worth watching, though, and it sports a perfect ending.
So now you know a bit about Alexander Payne. He’s a great introduction to auteur filmmaking, and I hope that you remember his name for future releases. He tends to pump out films at a rate of one every three to four years, with the occasional long hiatus. His next project is a film called ‘Downsizing’, set to be released in 2017. It appears to be a more straight forward science fiction slapstick comedy about people literally shrinking themselves. The cast is both impressive and eclectic, with Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, and Matt Damon, so I’m not sure what to expect.
I’m recommending that you start your “journey of Payne” (there’s got to be a better name for that) with Election and Sideways. If you don’t like both of these films, then Alexander Payne is clearly not for you.
If, however, you’re glad that you saw them, you should definitely move on to The Descendants, About Schmidt, and Nebraska. Beyond this point you can have a crack at Citizen Ruth. If you like them all, or even most of them, then it would appear that Alexander Payne is one of your new favourite filmmakers. Be a proud fan. Welcome to the club.